STEM Opportunities for Girls Lead Innovation at Hockaday, Dallas

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STEM Opportunities for Girls Lead Innovation at Hockaday, Dallas

As a testament to the passion with which so many educators embrace the need to fundamentally change how we teach, the 60th (or thereabouts) visit of my trip was just as rich and engaging as the first, with new approaches and models that we all can share.  I had not planned to visit The Hockaday School on this trip, but Assistant Head Cathy Murphree reached out to me a few weeks ago, and I am glad she did.  I was only on campus for a few hours, but they brought me up to speed quickly on a number of strong new intiatives; read on for notes on great program ideas in STEM at many grade levels, community engagement, coordinating research into the curriculum, blended and distance learning, and more.

photo-12 Hockaday is all-girls, preK-12 with about 1,100 girls in Dallas.  It is mostly a day school but they do have a cohort of borders, many from overseas.  I spent an hour talking about the process of institutional innovation with Cathy and second year Head Kim Wargo, both of whom clearly recognize that they will not meet their core mission of preparing their girls for their futures if they hold to a status quo.  Kim says that we need to “shift the mindset of students, faculty, and parents. Being innovative is a value we need to teach, so modeling that throughout the organization with calculated risks is what we need to do. Trying different things is good for both teachers and students.” Kim is developing a more nimble culture, where they do not need to wait two or three or five years to make significant change.  She wants people to be comfortable with “tweaking”, knowing that change will create problems, but they “will adjust and then face new challenges with confidence.” Cathy: “Finding a single standard is a losing battle.  Shame on ourselves if we lock ourselves in.”

It is clear to me that Kim understands that this is an existential question for independent schools.  “We are making great progress, but we have a lot of work to do with ourselves, much less the students.  There is a lot of holding on to the need to know answers.  That may be our downfall.  It is harder for schools than many organizations because everyone knows that each student only gets one shot at the process, so change is scary; there is real downside if we get it wrong.  But there is an even bigger downside if we don’t make these fundamental changes.” Hockaday is trying to give faculty pacesetters the resources they need.  They are pulling in data to help with decision-making wherever they can find it.  They reach out to other schools, search for corollary models, colleagues who have tried an idea or have common narrative to share. Kim expanded a Program Committee of teachers and administrators that brainstorms, listens, prioritizes, validates, and reports on ideas that come from the faculty.  There is organic percolation and growth of ideas here, but there are also firm timelines on decision pathways.

I asked Kim and Cathy about the vision they have painted, the ground on which they are asking their faculty to create a more engaged learning experience.  They mentioned experimentation; willingness to fail; interdisciplinary courses with fewer subject silos; leveraging technology to increase flexibility and create time, and play.

They have also set a clear expectation, supported in the evaluation process, that teachers grow and not do things the same way each year.  Kim asks teachers to articulate their own career paths, tell her what they want to do, and create plans and develop ideas for how to get there.  Faculty are starting to cross lines that in the past were rigid.  Department chairs visit every teacher in every grade level, and Cathy is in every classroom at least once a year. They are working with other schools on a number of fronts, including the Online School for Girls, and when teachers go to conferences, Cathy insists that they make connections and attend sessions outside of their wheelhouse.  Kim: “I want resilient learners who are not afraid to try new things, who are still excited about learning, about what comes next.  We are too bound by the concept that college is the end, the prize for our students.  It is not.”

Hockaday has made a strong commitment to ensuring that girls are turned on to the excitement and opportunities of math and science from an early age.  I met with a number of teachers leading this charge, and here are some of their highlights:

Lower School STEM cart

Lower School STEM cart

Jeri Sutton explained how they had recognized a number of years ago that the traditional Middle School math sequence did not make sense for many students, and they unsuccessfully looked for a model for an integrated math program.  Not finding one, they essentially built their own.  Now in its third year, students are exposed multiple times to concepts, and they feel it is a much more natural and richer way for the girls to learn what they need to prepare for pre-calculus.  The math department is also working in a variety of teaching styles, flipping with videos when that is called for, developing online resources for the students, and posting all of their notes, lessons, and recordings to their LMS platform.  Jeri says the girls really enjoy how well organized the material is now, and say they can more efficiently navigate their work.

Sheri Le, the 4th grade math teacher, showed me the Lower School STEM carts that have been developed over several years.  Starting with a pilot of a dozen carts, they now have 20 individual mobile racks full of building materials, one set for pre-K and K, and another set for grades 1-5.  Each cart has a designated design challenge, but frequently “the girls discard that and create something on their own out of the materials.  Or they will start to build a project per the design, and then go off on a tangent.”  All teachers are expected to allow at least an hour a week for the STEM carts, but Sheri says that students often gravitate to them during choice time as well.  They are very intentional in their goals: the activities are meant to enhance spatial reasoning, confidence with building and constructing, problem solving, and flexibility.  The Lower School has also embraced STEM career day when they invite women in STEM careers to talk to the students, and the Engineering Adventures challenges.  4th graders participate in the PBS Design Squad activities where they have built rubber band cars and a table out of newspapers.  In Sheri’s class there is a cabinet full of dead electronics that the students can dissect.  All of this was set up with virtually no model; the faculty recognized that students, and girls in particular, had a problem with spatial reasoning and willingness to take risks at this age, and they created the program to both teach and engage students in math and science before they got to middle and high school.  The program took about two years to go from idea to full implementation. Cost: not much.  What did teachers have to give up to embed a rich STEM experience in the classroom: 2/5 of the time they had allocated to free reading (their students tend to be strong readers anyway).

photo-14The Lower School is also using video-teleconferencing and other distance learning tools to engage the girls outside of the school walls.  Amy Banks and Karen Roberts told me that grades 2-4 engage off-site resources both to deliver content they can’t reproduce on campus, but also to just get the girls used to learning from multiple sources.  They dissected a cow eye in conjunction with a remote program (which they could have done in-house), but also connected with a museum in Minnesota for a program on the nature of invention and inventing. Karen received a fellowship with Earthwatch to study small mammals and global warming issues in Nova Scotia, and for two weeks she interacted via Skype with classes back in Dallas, bringing real-world research back to the classroom.  Amy says the real key is modeling life-long learning, that the students “realized that their teacher was somewhere learning.”

In the Upper School, Barbara Fischel and Richard Abbondanzio have developed a research program that places students in real working labs in the community in roles that are usually only open to juniors and seniors.  Over the summer 9th and 10th grade girls get to participate in authentic research; last summer they were working on the effects of red light on the healing of wounds.  There were opportunities to specialize in computer programming, biology, and engineering related to the project.  At the end they held a symposium for the community where the girls presented their work and findings. The faculty is working to increase this kind of research into the normal curriculum as it changes the students’ perception of what learning really looks like.

Beyond STEM, Hockaday is putting a great deal of effort into community engagement.  Laura Day works with both Hockaday and St. Mark’s, an all-boys school.  She has a deep background in community organizing, and is working with the COMMIT organization to create long-term collaboration between private and public schools.  This year, students will put in thousands of hours tutoring at Dallas ISD schools, and COMMIT has the knowledge and resources to gather data over long periods to ensure that the work is allocated strategically and with concrete results.  Students who have participated in the tutoring work go on a retreat, staying in a community center where they have worked and sharing with the families of these students.  Laura says they want students to get beyond the sense that they are doing some measure of service to those in need; it is about understanding the root causes of poverty and discrimination, to learn the skills of managing uncomfortable situations, and creating a place to process and put into action what they learn.  Students are coordinating the tutoring sites and older students train and transfer experience to younger students who then take on these leadership roles in order to ensure sustainability.

photo-16I finished my day speaking with Jason Curtis and John Ashton about Hockaday’s participation in the Online School for Girls and how they are creating conversations about the use and efficiency of time.  Jason used to work at Laurel in Cleveland and helped start OSG, which now has participants from more than 70 schools.  Hockaday now has about 30 girls who take at least one class through the consortium, teachers who teach online, and teachers who teach others how to develop online curricula.  It has helped the school increase differentiated foreign language offerings, and allows girls to take classes at their own pace, which they fell reduces overall stress on students who tend to want to do everything.

Spreading courses out over a wider time frame has led to a larger conversation about flexibility, use of off campus partners and learning opportunities, changes to the schedule, staggered morning starts, and more. John said they are asking the faculty to answer two questions: “What do you really love and need to hold onto, and what can you imagine?” It will be in the answers to these fundamental questions that highly successful schools like Hockaday continue to find relevance in a world of rapid change, where no one answer is a long-term solution.

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